The last days of summer saw students and parents shopping for school supplies and clothes from the list given out by their schools. Parents spent precious dollars, being told that this investment would pay dividends in increased student learning.
According to Yolanda Valdez, principal of Dinuba High School, “The dress code sets the tone for the atmosphere on your campus.” While there are different types of dress codes, from school uniforms to acceptable attire, the primary rationale is increasing student safety through easing gang tensions. If students feel safe, they will learn more. Yet, perhaps the more important question may be: What are students learning?
Many educators suggest dress codes are intended to teach students what is acceptable in the workforce. This seems reasonable. However, it assumes there are uniform workplace expectations. Work does not only take place in offices and factories. Some employers—some dotcom companies, for example—care less about how their employees dress and more about their work. In addition, as technological advances continue, some traditionalcorporations encourage employees to work at home, with no dress codes required. There are also the people who run their own home businesses.
The lack of uniform approach to acceptable workplace dress does not mean each workplace does not have expectations. Rather, it means students need to adapt, not conform. Students need to learn to dress appropriately based on context. Dress codes do not facilitate this learning. Instead, dress codes teach students that conformity and obedience to authority are most important. Individuality is suppressed. Student voice is suppressed.
These outcomes do not match the qualities employers look for. Employers want adaptable workers adept at creative and critical thinking, good decision-making and effective problem-solving. While schools are charged with helping students develop these qualities, the purpose of schools has changed very little over the past 170 years.
During the early years of our republic, children went to private school, had a private tutor or learned at home. These approaches worked because the population was fairly homogenous, with a common language and set of values. However, increased immigration led many to conclude there was a need for an institution to Americanize children. Horace Mann started public schools to promote a common set of values through a common language used to teach a common curriculum. The structure, rules and expectations of the school also conveyed these mainstream values. Success in school depended on children learning both hidden and taught curriculum.
Today, children from diverse backgrounds come together in the giant melting pot called public schools. Mainstream values are still conveyed through expectations, rules, structure and curriculum. Dress codes are part of the hidden curriculum. It isn’t enough for students to graduate with basic and advanced skills. Society expects them to be committed to capitalism and democracy, to hard work, honesty and the American Dream—and to dress appropriately.
Public schools are supposed to prepare students to participate in and contribute to American society. One way to succeed is to assimilate into the mainstream: to develop competence and internalize certain values. This means that conformity is the rule and students fit in or are left behind.
While developing skills and values is a good starting point, should conformity be the goal of public education? No. Our community and nation face many challenges such as discrimination, health care and pollution. New challenges will emerge. We need competent young people to meet these challenges and offer ways to move us toward a more just society. We need schools that help students develop skills-based competencies and critical thinking skills to become agents of change.
Schools need to move away from conformity to adaptability. Instead of suppressing students, schools should promote the development of individuality and voice to better prepare them for life after school. This means dress codes have no place in schools.
Scott Key, Ph.D., is a faculty member in the Fresno Pacific University School of Education. Before coming to FPU, he was at the University of Illinois and a member of the Small Schools Workshop in Chicago.